Ayn Rand vs Karl Marx: Nobody Wins
I tried to read The Fountainhead. I really did. But after ten or fifteen pages, I gave up. The text was so poorly written, so comically absurd yet mind-numbingly dull at the same time that I had to put it down. In my snobbery, when I see a smart friend’s profile on Facebook which lists one of Ayn Rand’s books as their favourites, I feel a sense of tremendous disappointment, the way I used to feel when I saw similarly smart people list The Da Vinci Code. Except The Da Vinci Code, however stupid, is a quick, entertaining read, and doesn’t turn its readers into sensational assholes (also, Dan Brown may be a bad writer, but he never really hurt anyone except the Catholic Church, and they had it coming). I could get through The Da Vinci Code. I doubt I’ll ever be able to stomach Atlas Shrugged.
Of course, you don’t need me to tell you about how bad Ayn Rand’s books are, or how stupid her philosophy of Objectivism is, or how much harm its adherents (converts?) have done to the American economy. I’ve addressed that a little bit here, and so has Wiz here, and so did GQ‘s Andrew Corsello in a hilarious hit piece titled “The Bitch is Back.” Corsello compares reading Rand (pictured left) at age 19 to “devouring a family-size bag of Cheetos in a single sitting. During: irresistible, bracing, the thing at hand imparting vitality, fertility, potency. After: bleccchh.” I never got to the irresistible part, but the urge to vomit came soon enough.
I think Rand’s work can best be summarized with an old intellectual putdown my father taught me: “Ayn Rand’s writing is both interesting and original. Unfortunately, what is interesting is not original, and what is original is not interesting.” I’d add that it’s also inaccurate and harmful and even downright pernicious, but that’s enough for now.
Perhaps the best short takedown of Rand can be found in The Nation, by Corey Robin. But if you’re looking for something a little longer, but don’t have the stomach for Rand herself, try this superb intellectual biography, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns.
In Burns’ book, we learn about the crazy cult of Objectivism, which Rand ran like an authoritarian tyrant. To call it quasi-religious might be a bit mild. As Burns writes on page 203:
Although Objectivism appeared a way to escape religion, it was more often a substitute, offering a similar regimentation and moralism without the sense of conformity. Rand’s ideas allowed students to reject traditional religion without feeling lost in a nihilistic, meaningless universe.
And yet three pages earlier, Burns compared the adoption of Objectivism to a similar religious experience.
In many ways the overwhelming impact of Rand’s ideas mimicked Marxism’s influence. Arthur Koestler’s memory of conversion to Communism echoes the sentiments expressed by Rand’s readers: “The new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull; the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle assembled by magic at one stroke. There is now an answer to every question; doubts and conflicts are a matter of the tortured past.” Only a small portion of Rand’s readers became as feverishly devoted to her ideas as Koestler did to Marxism, but the basic dynamic was similar. A twenty-four-year-old woman told Rand, “you have combined all my stray thoughts into an orderly, workable pattern–this alone is worth many years of my life.” Rand’s perspective could bring refreshing clarity to the unfocused, replacing doubt and uncertainty with passion and conviction.
It’s no accident that Burns used the word “conversion” to describe Koestler’s Marxist turn, nor that Koestler the himself used religious, even miraculous language to recount how he saw the “light” of scientific socialism. Objectivism, like Marxism, and most religious doctrines, are absolutist and all-encompassing philosophies.
When I first seriously studied Marx (pictured right) in the Dawson College Liberal Arts program (with Nemo among my classmates), our wonderful professor David Mulhall frequently used the term “millenarian” to describe Marxist thought. To Mulhall, and of course he was not the first to say this, Marxism was a fundamentally messianic faith, with its belief in the withering away of the state and an eventual Communist utopia, despite the mask of materialism. That description stuck with me.
When I studied Marxism as an undergraduate, I did so in the context of European intellectual history, with the brilliant Peter Gordon. With Gordon’s guidance, I came to understand Marx primarily as a “Left Hegelian,” someone who did not merely stand “Hegel on his head,” as Marx’s own cliche would have you, but in fact simply adapted Hegel to a more practical, materialist framework. Hegel’s messianic “world spirit” became Marx’s messianic working class, both operating in dialectical fashion.
When I finally studied Marx as a graduate student, in a History of the Left class (along with Wiz) taught by the excellent professors Molly Nolan and Linda Gordon (no relation to Peter, as far as I know), I had had enough. As a moderate social democrat and strong supporter of the welfare state, I was the class fascist, by far the most conservative, and probably the most vocal participant. This was certainly a strange scenario as a Canadian among mostly American students. I won’t lie: I relished the role. More important, I learned a great deal in these class discussions.
Of course, the stakes were pretty low. As my free market friend Josh once quipped: “the only place you’ll find real Marxists is in the humanities departments of universities, which is a good thing, because they can’t hurt anyone there.” This remark isn’t all that different from an observation made by the late Irving Kristol in his 1979 essay “The Adversary Culture of Intellectuals.” Kristol wrote, “if you want to meet active socialists intellectuals, you can go to Oxford or Berkeley or Paris or Rome. There is no point in going to Moscow or Peking or Belgrade or Bucharest or Havana.” Much as I loathe Kristol, he, and Josh (who I quite like) may be on to something. As the semester went on, much as I enjoyed it, I became exasperated.
You see, I felt that the class, like much of academia, venerated (and venerates) Marx in a way that is totally inappropriate, and frankly ahistorical. This will offend some readers (and possibly writers) of this blog, but when I hear obviously Marxist academics make obviously Marxist arguments, my eyes secretly glaze over (or perhaps not so secretly, if my subtlety is wearing thin) much in the same way they would if I had to listen to a Creationist defend the Biblical account on the universe’s origins, or an Intelligent Design advocate attempt to mesh Darwin with God’s divine plan. It’s like that feeling you get when you meet very smart and devoutly religious people and you think to yourself “how do intelligent people believe this nonsense?”
I remember being spellbound by the fantasy history of the Soviet Union woven in his Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge by the elderly Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher (published in 1967 under the title The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917–1967). The form so elegantly transcended the content that we accepted the latter on trust: detoxification took a while. Sheer rhetorical facility, whatever its appeal, need not denote originality and depth of content.
This is not to say that Marx is entirely devoid of “originality and depth of content.” I don’t really think Marx is nonsense. The funny thing is, I love Marx. I really do. I think his writing was and is sensationally inspirational. Politically, I think his vision is impractical but nonetheless alluring, his goals noble and moral. I even think that his observations about working class life in the 19th century, with the industrial revolution reaching full steam, was incredibly astute.
But there’s the rub. As a historian, I can’t help think we’d be better off looking at Marx in his context. Yes, his description of worker alienation, and commodity fetishization can still ring true, in certain very specific circumstances, like in the developing world today. But on the whole, one cannot escape the fact, and yes it is a fact, that Marx got a whole lot wrong. He thought nationalism was a weak force, but in fact it was (and is) a very strong one. More important, he never recognized the power of a middle way, of strong welfare states offering a restraint on, rather than the destruction of, the market economy . He never imagined the compelling appeal of unions, like those of Samuel Gompers (pictured right) that offered “bread and butter” benefits to dignify workers within a capitalist framework (minus Gompers’ racism and sexism).
More important, Marx didn’t realize that most workers wanted to cease being workers, or at least, ensure that their children would not have to work like they did. Indeed, the story of eastern European Jews in America serves as a spectacular refutation of Marxism. Many came with dedication to socialism in hand, or more likely one that they learned on the job. They were active in left wing politics on New York’s Lower East Side and elsewhere. They worked in sweat shops, and lived in dilapidated tenement apartments. But eventually, they sent their kids to public school, and their kids became doctors and lawyers and entered the middle class. They mostly (though not all) remained on the left, but typically the mainstream left, of the Democratic Party. Their class consciousness was no more, if it ever really existed.
There’s no way Marx could have anticipated any of this, let alone i-phones and the Internet and a million other kinds of technological, scientific and philosophical and historical developments that have laid waste to his theory. Which is why, as I said earlier, we should understand Marx in context. And the same goes for Rand. Incidentally, that’s precisely what Burns does: her Rand responded to her upbringing as a middle-class Jew in Russia and then the Soviet Union, her disillusionment with the New Deal, and her distaste for the Judeo-Christian religiosity of mainstream conservatives, and role as a fierce Cold Warrior. But she too, like Marx, could not anticipate history.
As I’ve written here before, one of the biggest problems with Marxism, as the great philosopher Sir Karl Popper (pictured below) elucidated many years ago, was it’s utter imperviousness to “falsifiability.” As Popper wrote, “the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.” Marx’s socialism, like Freud’s psychoanalysis, could not be scientific, because they couldn’t really be proven or disproven. As I wrote then:
[Popper] criticized Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxian economics on the ground that they were not falsifiable. Their advocates found evidence in every result, even ones that seemed to blatantly contradict these “theories.” The Marxist revolution never happened, so Marxists tweaked the theory, rather than abandon it. They forced a strange fit of theory and fact, rather than simply form a new theory. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, on the other hand, is a valid theory, because it is testable, the results came in, proving it right. If different results has come in, the theory would have been proven wrong.
I think the same of course, can be said about those who remain faithful to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, or who remain staunch believers in free market capitalism, even after the recent troubles of the American economy. Whatever the facts, they will find some way to make them fit the theory.
One of the biggest problems I have with Rand and Marx is this implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim to inevitability. I don’t think anything is inevitable. I know that many, perhaps most Marxists, abandoned inevitability by the 1930s, including, Sidney Hook, who attempted to meld Marxism with John Dewey’s pragmatism in his 1934 essay “Communism Without Dogmas.” I would argue that by abandoning inevitability, these “Marxists” had actually abandoned Marxism entirely, and tweaked it save the theory, as Popper’s critique noted.
Because, annoyingly for them, history got in the way. As I just said, I don’t think anything is inevitable, and I don’t think that Marx is to be blamed for the gulag. Nonetheless, with all the horrors of the 20th century, from Stalin’s Soviet Union to Mao’s China and many others in the name of some kind of scientific socialism, Marxists, if not Marx, have a lot to answer for.
So too do the Randians today, some of whom (Paul Ryan, Rand and Ron Paul, Glenn Beck, and so on) simply ignore her militant atheism (as Burns recounts, she once told William F. Buckley that he was “too intelligent to believe in God”). More significantly, many of Rand’s adherents ignore her inability to deal with historical reality and economic facts.
But I think the basic similarity between Rand and Marx comes in their misjudgment of human nature. Rand, as a hyper-individualist, had absolutely no sense of the joys of human love and companionship (hence her unfulfilling marital life, substance abuse, and chronic depression), the warmth of community, and most famously, the dignity of altruism. Indeed, she despised fellow libertarians Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman because they argued that libertarianism was actually good from a utilitarian standpoint, that Adam Smith’s invisible hand would bring the greatest good to the greatest number. Rand didn’t care about that. She thought altruism was wrong, plain and simple. People should act selfishly and only selfishly, no matter what happened to anyone else. Not only did she think Christianity led to socialism, or at that it basically was socialism, she believed that self-sacrificial altruism, the very essence of Christianity (Jesus didn’t die for his own sins, but for yours), was immoral.
Rand seems to advocate the basic philosophical principle of psychological egoism, without any awareness of its simplicity and flaws. Psychological egoists say: “people are selfish because they always do what they want,” without taking into account that what people want differs greatly. Some people want to work in soup kitchens, others want to be investment bankers, still others want to be axe murderers. Each are doing what they want, but we can evaluate their desires as having different moral standings.
Marx went the other way. First, his community is too large: he has no use for ethno-cultural particularism, gender solidarity, or anything that moves beyond class. Second, his philosophy does not understand the thoroughly strongly individualistic aspect of human nature. Sure, Sidney Hook (pictured below) tried to argue against that proposition:
Communism is hostile to individualism, as a social theory, and not individuality, as a social value. It seeks to provide the material guarantee of security without which the free development of individuality or personality is an empty or impossible ideal. But the free development of personality remains its ideal; difference uniqueness, independence, and creative originality are intrinsic values to be fostered and strengthened; and indeed one of the strongest arguments against capitalism is that it prevents these values from flourishing for all but a few.
I’m not sure this distinction is true in theory, as Marx has no use for individual expression that derived from national or ethno-cultural traditions. In practice, it has meant even less. Experiments in socialism have often bred uniformity, with Mao’s cultural revolution perhaps the most egregious example, and the limits placed on Soviet art a close second. I think one can argue that strong welfare states in a capitalist context allow for a good amount of “material security” along with the “free development of personality.”
Furthermore, Marx and Marxists discount the importance of individualism, not just individuality, to human beings, who often do place their first loyalties to themselves and to their families, well above class and community. Indeed, this little ditty my father taught me may provide more insight into class relations and human nature than anything Marx or Engels or other Marxists theorists ever wrote:
The working class, can kiss my ass, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.
Again, I do think much of Marx is valuable, and inspirational, orders of magnitude more than Rand. But like Rand, historically it doesn’t hold up, and politically it seems to contradict human nature as I understand it. Which is why, much as I think pragmatism is a silly philosophy with which to pursue scholarship (I believe in objectivity, but not Objectivism), I think it’s useful, or dare I say, pragmatic, when it comes to politics. It allows for the flexibility to change your opinion, to make compromises, to account for new evidence and realities. Of course, not all compromises are good, and principles are important too, which is why I support a progressive, principled pragmatism.
I think one can do this and remain on the left. One can remain committed to left-wing policies and politics without adhering to any sort of Marxism. Tony Judt will be remembered as a leading advocate of social democracy. Yet some on the left often forget that he cut his teeth as a STAUNCHLY ANTI-MARXIST thinker, criticizing French Communists who ignored, downplayed, or apologized for Stalin’s crimes.
My point here is not to venerate pragmatism or Tony Judt’s political views, both of which have their flaws. My point is simply to say that one can uphold progressive politics and fight the legacy of Ayn Rand without succumbing to the philosophy of her much smarter, much more moral but similarly dogmatic and messianic alter ego, Karl Marx.